On the basis of arrest reports, Lakshadweep India is a global hot spot for sea cucumber poaching and smuggling. The authorities have been fighting a protracted battle to combat this form of wildlife crime for a number of years. Their efforts have included the creation of the world’s first conservation area for sea cucumbers in February 2020 – the Dr K.K. Mohammed Koya Sea Cucumber Conservation Reserve, a 239km2 area near Cheriyapani, Laksadweep, and the formation of the Lakshadweep Sea Cucumber Protection Task Force. Several cases have also been referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Increased vigilance has led to a growing number of arrests and seizures. The most recent seizure occurred on August 13, 2020, when officials from the Lakshadweep Sea Cucumber Protection Task Force seized a consignment of processed sea cucumbers worth Rs. 1 crore ($133,460 USD) from Agatti Island. However, despite these arrests and seizures, sea cucumber poaching and smuggling in Lakshadweep persists.
This week (August 19, 2020), the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change announced the formation of a number of ‘anti-poaching camps’ to increase monitoring capacity on the uninhabited islands of Suheli, Thinnakara and Veliyapani, a hotspot for sea cucumber poaching. Efforts to recruit staff to operate these camps are currently underway.
Over 1,700 species of sea cucumber (Holothuroidea) have been described globally. 173 of these can be found in Indian waters, and of these, about 16 are considered commercially important. Sea cucumbers play important roles in marine ecosystems: sea cucumbers that burrow into the sea bed help rework the soil in a process known as bioturbation which helps other species flourish and is a major driver of biodiversity. As deposit feeders, sea cucumbers play an important role in nutrient cycling. Their actions reduce organic loads and redistribute surface sediment, and the inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus they excrete enhances the benthic (sea floor) habitat. As a result they are excellent bioremediators. These same actions can increase seawater alkalinity, which helps create local buffers against ocean acidification, supporting the survival of coral reefs. Sea cucumbers are food for others species, and also have complex symbiotic relationships with others.
Removing sea cucumbers from an ecosystem in unsustainable numbers can therefore have a serious impact on that ecosystems and the species that live there. One study summarized this impact, explaining that the “overexploitation of sea cucumbers is likely to decrease sediment health, reduce nutrient recycling and potential benefits of deposit-feeding to seawater chemistry, diminish biodiversity of associated symbionts, and reduce the transfer of organic matter from detritus to higher trophic levels.”
Sea cucumbers are typically sold dried, canned or frozen form, though sea cucumber powders and extracts are also available. Sea cucumbers are consumed as both luxury food items and in Traditional Chinese Medicine’ (TCM). Demand for sea cucumbers has increased in recent years and have prices. The price of a kilogram of dried sea cucumber, also known as beche-de-mer, that sold for the equivalent of ~US$3 in the 1960s and sold for ~US$60 in the 1980s and ~US$120 in the 1990s, skyrocketed ~US$370 in the 2000s (source)! Today, prices are even higher.
Prices vary based on quality and species. The most expensive tropical species, the sandfish Holothuria scabra retail for as much as US$1,800/kg, and the most expensive temperate-water species is the Apostichopus japonicas, which can be found retailing for as much as US$3,583/kg. The most expensive species that comes from Indian waters is likely the white teatfish, Holothuria fuscogilva, which sells for as much as US$401/kg (source).
Such high prices lead to over exploitation. Sea cucumber exploitation follows a sadly common pattern which has become known as serial exploitation, where ‘roving bandits’ will move into an area, fully exploit it often leading to the extirpation of the species, and then move on to another area to exploit, leaving local ecosystems and fishers devastated.
Soaring prices and increased demand fueled over exploitation in Indian waters. After attempts at regulating harvest failed, the Indian government implemented a total ban on harvesting and transporting sea cucumbers. In 2001, a blanket ban was announced and all species of holothurians (sea cucumbers) were listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (source). Such measures are important, but strong legislation must be accompanied by stiff penalties and adequate monitoring and enforcement, and despite this legislation and increasing attention by the authorities, sea cucumber poaching and smuggling persists.
Our research team has been conducting a comprehensive survey of crime in sea cucumber fisheries around the globe for a year. Through this research, we identified found crime at every stage of this fisheries supply chain. We have also noticed the involvement of pre-existing organized crime syndicates, like the Yakuza, in the industry, as well as the formation syndicates and cartels explicitly to support the exploitation of sea cucumbers. The Sinaloa Cartel, a violent Mexican drug cartel, used ‘sea cucumbers’ as cover for importing millions of dollars of narcotics into the United States (source).
Our ongoing monitoring of the industry has indentified Tamil Nadu and Lakshadweep in southern India, as well as Sri Lanka as a global hotspot for sea cucumber crime. Illicit sea cucumber operations in this region vary in size and levels of organization. An operation may involve a couple of fishers in a small boat or gleaning on the shore, to larger groups using divers and operating a number of vessels in deeper waters. The general modus operandi appears to entail sea cucumbers being poached from Indian waters and then smuggled into Sri Lanka. In this way, the sea cucumbers are laundered and can be re-exported to South East Asian markets.
Police have typically operated by following up on tip offs, or interdicting vessels at sea, and there has been a significant increase in arrests in recent years. We conducted a detailed study of news reports of arrests for sea cucumber-related crimes in India from 2015 to the present. Working from English language news media sources and triangulating information for each case using all available news articles, we identified 41 reports from across India and they were predominantly in Tamil Nadu and Lakshadweep (mapping efforts are under way). These reports included the seizure of 27.1 tonnes of dry, wet, and live sea cucumbers (27,166.5 kg), with an estimated value of US$3.9million (IND₹ 29.4 crore) at current prices!
Our study also documented 73 arrests, the seizure of seven boats, one SUV, one three wheeler, and significant amounts of gear. The number of reports, arrests, and seizures has gone up over the years, seemingly commensurate with both an expansion of policing effort and an increase in sea cucumber crime.
Number of Reports
Number of Arrests
Value of Seizures
* Mix of live, processed (dry and wet), and semi-processed sea cucumbers.
** As of August 22, 2020.
Calculating the value of these seizures was challenging, as the price of sea cucumbers can vary considerably due to quality and species. We also found inconsistent reporting on the value of the sea cucumbers seized, which is understandable given that calculating these values is complex (wholesale vs. retail prices, processed vs. freshly caught) and because police and news media reports are often prone to exaggeration. Furthermore, the type of sea cucumber seized varied from case to case – seizures involved wet and dry processed and semi-processed sea cucumbers, as well as live animals, so these weights provide a rough estimate of the amount of sea cucumber caught. The weight of a processed sea cucumber is considerably less than a live one, so there is likely an over-estimation of weight.
To calculate an average per kilogram cost of the sea cucumbers that were likely to be those involved in seizures, we conducted a quick survey of postings of ‘White Teatfish’ on Alibaba.com and ExportIndia.com. We selected this species as it is a popular variety and one which is likely involved in most of the seizures, something we were able to confirm using images of seizures from news media reports. Prices ranged considerably, from US$35/kg to US$258/kg. We calculated the median price from six postings and then averaged these values to arrive at US$144.5/kg. The value of the seizures using this median price equates to US$3.9 million. Price ranges averaged from US$100kg to US$188/kg, which would give the range of seizures as being between US$2.7 million to $5.1 million.
There are other limitations to the research. We are relying on English-language media reports, as a result, it is possible that we have missed cases that might have only been reporting on in non-English languages, or which did not receive media attention. Given that some cases involving very small seizures were still reported in the press, like the June 13, 2015 seizure of 20kg of sea cucumber from a fishing vessel, we find the latter less likely.
We recognized the limitations of our methods and that the analysis of the data is ongoing, but these conservative preliminary numbers describe a significant increase in sea cucumber crime in southern India, and suggest that increase monitoring and enforcement effort on the part of the authorities we justified and welcome.
Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff
Director of Research, OceansAsia